If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

Pirkey Avot 1:13

Joseph ben Ephraim Caro-biogrphy

Joseph ben Ephraim Caro, also spelled Yosef Karo, or Qaro, (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, 1575)was author of the last great codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, which is still authoritative for all Jews pertaining to their respective communities. To this end he is often referred to as ha-Mechaber (Hebrew: "The Author") and as Maran (Aramaic: "Our Master").

Early life

Caro was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. In 1492, aged four years old, he was forced to flee Spain with his family and the rest of Spanish Jewry because of Jewish expulsion from the Alhambra Decree and subsequently settled in Portugal. After the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497, Caro went with his parents to Nikopolis in current day Bulgaria, where he received his first instruction from his father, who was himself an eminent Talmudist. He married, first, Isaac Saba's daughter, and, after her death, the daughter of Hayyim Albalag, both of these men being well-known Talmudists. After the death of his second wife he married the daughter of Zechariah Sechsel (or perhaps Sachsel), a learned and wealthy Talmudist.

Already as a young man, he gained a reputation as a brilliant Torah scholar. He began by writing an explanation on the Rambam's Mishneh Torah. He called his work the Kesef Mishnah. Here he cited and explained Rambam's sources.

Between 1520 and 1522 Caro settled at Adrianople. He later emigrated to Palestine, where he arrived about 1535, having en route spent several years at Salonica (1533) and Constantinople.

Authority recognized

After his first wife died at a young age, he married the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchak Sabba. For a short while he lived in Nikopol, Bulgaria, but decided to make his way to the Holy Land so that he could immerse himself in its sanctity and complete his written works. Passing through Salonica, he met the great kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Taitatzak. He continued his journey to the Holy Land via Egypt and eventually settled in Safed.

At Safed he met Rabbi Jacob Berab, who exerted a great influence upon him, Caro becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Berab's plans for the restitution of semicha (rabbinical ordination). After Berab's death Caro tried to carry out these plans, ordaining his pupil Moses Alshech, but he finally gave up his endeavors, convinced that he could not overcome the opposition to ordination.

He was soon appointed a member of the rabbinical court of the city in the Beth Din of the famous Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. When the latter re-instituted semicha, which had been in abeyance for over 11 centuries, Karo was one of the first he ordained. Here, too, Caro established a yeshiva and taught Torah to scores of eager students.

When Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, the leading sage of Safed, passed away, Caro was regarded as his successor, and together with Rabbi Moshe of Trani he headed the Rabbinical Court of Safed. In fact, by this time, the Rabbinical Court of Safed had become the central rabbinical court in all of Israel, and indeed of the diaspora as well. Thus there was not a single matter of national or global importance that did not come to the attention and ruling of the Safed Beth Din. Its rulings were accepted as final and conclusive, and Caro's halachic decisions and clarifications were sought by sages from every corner of the diaspora. He came to be regarded as the leader of the entire generation

In a dramatic testimonial, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz testified that in Salonica, Caro had become one of the rare individuals who merited to be instructed by a maggid - a private angelic teacher who revealed to him many kabbalistic teachings. The maggid exhorted Caro to sanctify and purify himself, and he revealed to him events that would take place in the future. In Shaarei Kedusha, Rabbi Chaim Vital explains that visitation by a maggid is a form of Divine Inspiration (ruach hakodesh). The teachings of the maggid are recorded in his published work titled Maggid Meisharim, although Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai notes that only about one fiftieth of the manuscript was ever published, (see Works). However, in numerous places in Maggid Meisharim it is stated that, "I am the Mishna that speaks in your mouth," indicating that the Oral Torah itself (of which the Mishna is the fundamental part) spoke within him. (However, these two explanations are not necessarily contradictory—in the merit of the Mishna Caro constantly reviewed, he was worthy of an angelic teacher).

The Maggid promised him that he would have the merit of settling in Israel, and this promise was fulfilled. Another promise, that he would merit to die a martyr's death sanctifying God's Name like Rabbi Shlomo Molcho had merited, did not transpire for an unspecified reason.

His reputation during the last thirty years of his life was greater than that of almost any other rabbi since Maimonides. The Italian Azariah dei Rossi, though his views differed widely from Caro's, collected money among the rich Italian Jews for the purpose of having a work of Caro's printed; and Moses Isserles compelled the recognition of one of Caro's decisions at Kraków, although he thought Caro was wrong. When some members of the community of Carpentras, France, believed themselves to have been unjustly treated by the majority in a matter relating to taxes, they appealed to Caro, whose letter was sufficient to restore to them their rights (Rev. Etudes Juives 18:133-136). In the East, Caro's authority was, if possible, even greater. His name heads the decree of excommunication directed against Daud, Joseph Nasi's agent; and it was Caro who condemned Dei Rossi's Me'or Enayim to be burned. Several funeral orations delivered on that occasion have been preserved (Moses Albelda, Darash Mosheh; Samuel Katzenellenbogen, Derashot), as well as some elegies from Caro's passing.


Caro published during his lifetime:

  • Beth Yosef (בית יוסף), a commentary on Arba'ah Turim, the current work of Jewish law in his days;
  • Shulchan Aruch (שולחן ערוך), a condensation of his decisions in Beth Yosef;
  • Kesef Mishneh (כסף משנה) (Venice, 1574-5), a commentary of Mishneh Torah by Maimonides;

After his death there appeared:

  • Bedek ha-Bayit (בדק הבית) (Salonica, 1605), supplements and corrections to Beth Yosef;
  • Kelalei ha-Talmud (כללי התלמוד) (Salonica, 1598), on the methodology of the Talmud;
  • Avkath Rochel (אבקת רוכל) (Salonica, 1791), Responsa
  • Maggid Meisharim (מגיד מישרים) (Lublin, 1646), and supplements (Venice, 1646)
  • Derashot (דרשות) (Salonica, 1799), speeches, in the collection 'Oz Tzaddikim'.

Caro also left a commentary upon the Mishnah, as well as supercommentaries to Rashi's and Nahmanides' commentaries on the Torah, which have, apparently, not been preserved.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: Biography
The article is about these people:   Joseph ben Ephraim Caro

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